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On ballots: Has pro-marijuana camp found way to win over middle America?

Ballot initiatives in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington would make recreational use of marijuana legal. At least one is likely to succeed. Pro-legalization groups have been honing their message.

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On a conference call Monday, several former senior DEA officials and directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy said Washington should make it clear to voters that even if states pass the initiatives, pot smokers in those states would still be violating federal law.

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The former drug-war officials on the conference call said that states like Colorado, which have legalized medical marijuana, have seen problems mount as a result, including reports of higher crime, more drug use by teens, and growing numbers of drug driving arrests.

On the call, former US drug czar John Walters said he thought it was “shocking” that Mr. Holder hasn’t made a statement on the referenda. “All you have to do is say things that this administration has already said. It would help enormously and I think it would defeat these measures,” said Mr. Walters.

The federal response, if any of the initiatives pass, will be critical. Obama said early on in his presidency that arresting medical marijuana users would not be a priority, although Mr. Holder said ahead of the 2010 election that the Department of Justice would “vigorously enforce” drug laws.

This year, Holder has been notably silent about the Western legalization referenda. And while Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan at one point said it’s up to states to decide, he later walked back that statement to Mitt Romney’s position, which is to fight legalization “tooth and nail,” as he recently said.

But stanching legalization at the state level may not be that easy. If voters approve such measures, it may force the federal government to adopt a nuanced approach. In Colorado, for example, the law is written so that revenues would go to schools, meaning federal enforcement could be seen as taking money away from education.

Other results could whittle away support for legalization, contends Mr. Kilmer at RAND. Lower prices – which would be inevitable if pot could be grown legally as an agricultural product – may drive more usage in other states and could seriously reduce expected tax receipts from legal weed sales, all of which may raise federal ire.

In the end, the focus of the new initiatives has been on assuring those who don’t smoke pot that the laws will actually have a net social benefit. To produce such benefits, marijuana proponents have now acknowledged, serious and complex regulatory safeguards have to be proposed, all of which means the growth of state government.

The "libertarian … dream of legal pot with no regulations" does not play well with voters, Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project tells the Huffington Post.

What may be playing the biggest role in the success so far of the Washington initiative specifically is that former US law enforcement officials have joined the pro-legalization movement.

In an ad running now, former US Attorneys John McKay and Kate Pflaumer appear with Charles Mandingo, the FBI’s former Seattle chief, to support Initiative 105’s licensing of marijuana growers, processors, and retailers.

"We know firsthand that decades of marijuana arrests have failed to reduce use," Mr. Mandigo says. "And the drug cartels are pocketing all the profits."

Rick Steves, the well-known PBS travel show host, is also currently touring the state, touting a pro-legalization message. Mr. Steves has said he does not believe that Washington will become a drug “mecca” if the law passes.


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